I don’t have any real sisters. I have a brother and six years’ experience at being an only child. When my parents sat me down for the “we’re having a baby” talk when I was five and a half, I said I wanted a sister because I figured she’d be easier to adapt to than the foreign boy-ways of a brother. What I truly wanted was no baby at all, but apparently even in kindergarten I realized that option was long gone.
I came to appreciate my brother for many reasons, reasons that have evolved from the basic “he doesn’t really care about my Barbies” to “I have someone in my life who is always in the mood to watch Star Wars” to “he has a vastly different perspective on the world and challenges my status quo.” And not once since my initial groan at the happy news from my father of, “You have a brother!” have I wished I had a sister.
I’m a lucky woman in the fact that I have many pockets of good girlfriends who have given me all the benefits I see to sisterhood — support, advice, companionship, nearly unconditional love — without the drawbacks of jealousy, rivalry and family drama. I have chosen my sisters and they have chosen me.
Thus, I always find it interesting to read books about women with sisters, especially when the story revolves around the axis of sisterhood. My first two books of 2011 unintentionally fall in this category: In Her Shoes, by Jennifer Weiner, and Sense and Sensibility, by Jane Austen. On the surface, these books seem to have little in common — the world of early 21st century Philadelphia, where an author starts out a book with a hookup in the bathroom at a class reunion, would be scandalous to not only Jane Austen, but the Dashwood girls. But the basic gist of the stories are the same: “Two sisters deal with the loss of a parent while juggling their own quests for love and happiness with the frustrating bond of sisterhood.” The classic juxtaposition of the smart and sensible sister against the impulsive and romantic sister hasn’t changed. And there are today as in Jane’s world lines that sisters should not cross. Both books reinforce that pride and secrets can get in the way of even the most solid relationship.
True, the stories are different. Practical Elinor Dashwood and her romantic sister Marianne struggle to find happiness with their newly lower lot in life and the confusing men whose love they try to secure. Sensible Rose Feller and her impulsive sister Maggie struggle to find happiness as they reinvent themselves while coming to terms with their mother’s death and their grandmother’s love. In Her Shoes has a much more complex storyline, but all of the sisters find a lot at stake — not only in their romantic lives and their livelihoods, but their sister relationship as well. Rose is burned again and again by Maggie and her requests to borrow money, shoes and boyfriends; Maggie feels stifled by her sister’s expectations. Marianne can’t understand her sister’s reserve and lack of outward passion; Elinor finds her sister’s lack of propriety and tendency to wear her heart on her sleeve to be potentially dangerous. In Her Shoes relies more on the sister relationship and explores it more fully, but the fact of it is, in both stories, these women realize that their sisters are indispensable and their one ally against the forces of the rest of the world.
Initially the drama of these books reminded me how glad I am I don’t have a sister. But I have to admit, they made me glad for my fake sisters. (And that my future doesn’t depend on the inheritance of my husband or the charity of my brother. But that is a topic for a different post.)